Thunder Bay, Ont.
Around 800 participants joined in one of the largest-ever instances of a KAIROS blanket exercise, an activity that helps teach Canada’s history and relationship with Indigenous peoples and the land, at the Canadian Lutheran and Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering August 16.
The event was second only in size to an exercise held on Parliament Hill in 2016, to mark the first anniversary of the release of the 94 Calls to Action by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
KAIROS Canada is an ecumenical social justice organization made up of 10 member churches and religious organizations, including the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.
The exercise was introduced at CLAY by Ed Bianchi, KAIROS program manager, Dawn Maracle, Indigenous rights co-ordinator, as well as by Esther Diabo, CLAY’s Indigenous elder-in-residence.
Diabo opened the address with a prayer in Ojibwe, which is her first language, adding that she does not provide translation for prayers. “I think when somebody prays it comes from your heart to Creator. I don’t translate traditional songs or spiritual songs by anyone. I think if you’re going to be acknowledging Creator, it’s the way that you know how best to do that,” she told those gathered.
For nine years, Diabo attended residential schools, where she was not allowed to speak her language. She now teaches Ojibwe language and culture classes.
She taught two Ojibwe words to the CLAY youth: boozhoo and miigwech. “Boozhoo was the first word out of Creator’s mouth during the Ojibwe creation story, when he asked the Ojibwe trickster to help with creation. And on the seventh day, when it was all done and it was all according to what Creator wanted, he said miigwech to the trickster. So those two words[…] are spiritual words. They’re the foundation of the Ojibwe language,” she said.
Diabo also explained the purification ceremony that took place before the blanket exercise. Tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar were burned in a bowl, and the smoke was wafted over those present. Cupping her hands and mimicking the motion of washing her face with the smoke, Diabo explained, “You take your smoke and you wash over your mind, pull out all those negative thoughts…You [wash over] your eyes because you want to see good. You do your ears because you want to hear only good. You do your mouth because you want to say only good things about other people. And you do your heart because you want to love, pure and unconditional love.”
After removing their shoes, CLAY attendees packed onto an array of colourful blankets that were spread across the floor, representing the land of what is now called North America. Participants were given directions as a detailed history of the land, Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land, and the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Europeans from first contact to present-day was read in segments.
The blankets were folded smaller, and in some cases, discarded, as leaders read through scripts that touched on the Doctrine of Discovery, the distribution of small-pox-infected blankets, terra nullius (the papal bull declaring the land “empty land” that could be conquered), treaties, enfranchisement policy, the Indian Act and the creation of Indian residential schools.
Youth representing those who died moved to sit in a circle surrounding the blankets, as a “circle of ancestors” watched history unfold.
Jesslyn Emms, who worships in the diocese of Algoma, was in the first large group that had to step off the blanket. Along with nearly half the participants, she was given a white card, signifying death from diseases spread from first contact with the Europeans.
“You looked around and you’re holding your white card up, and it’s like, ‘This is a lot of people,’ ” said Emms. She says the experience was “eye-opening.”
“You can see it in a textbook,” she says, but actually walking through the history in real time made the scope of what happened hit home. “Their whole lives were uprooted. I just had to leave a blanket.”
The number of participants also had an impact on those involved. Charlotte Lilley, who worships in the diocese of Huron, had done the exercise once before, at home in Cambridge, Ont. “It was a much smaller group—there were maybe 12 of us doing it. So to go and do it with 800 people was really interesting. I think you really get a better idea of the scope of the issues you’re looking at,” she said. “It’s a lot different when 200 people step off the blanket than when two or three step off the blanket.”
The scripts also touched on reconciliation work being done today, and at one point highlighted Shannen Koostachin, a youth education advocate from Attawapiskat First Nation who campaigned for “safe and comfy” schools for Indigenous students before dying in an automobile accident at age 15. After highlighting Shannen’s Dream, the campaign that carries on her legacy, leaders asked those left standing on blankets to unfold a corner, making the blankets a little bigger. A passionate round of applause greeted this action.
The blanket exercise was first developed in 1997 by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, in response to the findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and adopted by KAIROS when it was formed in 2001. (The Aboriginal Rights Coalition is a member of KAIROS.)
More details about the blanket exercise can be found at www.kairosblanketexercise.org.